The day after Halloween is probably a good day to write about fear.

I just finished reading The Culture of Fear by Barry Glassner. In this highly-acclaimed book, Glassner points out that Americans spend vast amounts of time, energy, and mental space fearing the wrong things. For example, airline accidents (22 deaths last year) receive much more media attention than the dangers of everyday driving (43,443 deaths last year) (see NTSB, 2006). We spend billions of dollars trying to curb illegal drug use but spend less than 1 percent of the nation’s antidrug budget on curbing prescription drug abuse, which accounts for over half of drug-related medical issues and deaths (Glassner, 1999, pp. 131–132). Teen pregnancies are labeled as America’s “most serious social problem” despite the fact that teenage birth rates are declining and that the highest teenage birth rates were in the 1950s (p. 93). We are more alarmed about homicides (11th-ranked cause of death) than about heart disease (leading cause of death) (pp. xx-xxi). We spend enormous sums of money responding to public panics over low-frequency incidents like operating table fires or flesh-eating bacteria or the dangers of vaccines or sexual abuse by daycare providers or razor blades in Halloween apples while poverty and low levels of education and unhealthy diets continue to have significantly greater impacts on our daily lives. We worry about road rage rather than drunk drivers. And so on.

In education, we too are often ruled by fear.

In education, we focus on the dangers of online child predators rather than on dropout rates.

In education, we require urban schools to spend money on Internet filtering but not on decaying, unsafe school facilities.

Because of a few isolated incidents, we succumb to the siren song of school safety alarmists and pay for metal detectors and drug-sniffing dogs and networked video cameras and drug testing of students in extracurricular activities instead of preschool education.

We would be much better off as a society if we spent less money and attention on sensationalist issues and instead focused on what matters: improving high school dropout and college completion rates, increasing the number of children who arrive at school ready to learn, reducing the growing segregation of students of color and poverty in urban school districts, more equitable school funding, educating children for their future rather then their past…

How much money do we waste on low-frequency, low-impact (but high-profile) issues? I wish that in education, and in America, we were more brave.

This post is also available at the TechLearning blog.

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